A yearlong investigation by The Baltimore Sun found that the rent court system routinely works against tenants, while in many cases failing to hold landlords accountable for not meeting minimum housing standards.
Baltimore, along with other parts of the nation, is confronting a housing crisis — not the crisis that a decade or so ago caused the collapse of home ownership and mortgage lending. This is a rental crisis. The rent affordability gap means that 25 percent of Maryland renters spend 50 percent or more of their household income on rent. In Baltimore City alone, some 150,000 cases are filed in rent court each year and approximately 7,000 families are evicted.
Recent media coverage continues to unravel the many layers of complexity that prevent tenants from having a "level playing field" with their landlord adversaries. As reported in The Sun ("Lawmakers seek legal aid for tenants facing eviction in Baltimore," July 3), local legislators are proposing legislation to provide assistance to tenants facing eviction and defend themselves against unscrupulous landlords. Advocates, judges, legislators, academics and the landlords have convened extensively and exhaustively to seek solutions to rental housing inequities. Some suggestions have included providing more legal and paralegal representation for tenants in court. Although there are non-profit agencies like the Public Justice Center, Civil Justice, Maryland Legal Aid and others providing assistance to tenants, the demand for help is astronomical. Currently, while landlords are able to be represented by agents (non-lawyers) as well as by attorneys, tenants must be represented by (and often pay) attorneys or represent themselves in court.
Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc., where I serve as executive director, offers assistance through trained tenant/landlord counselors who provide information and guidance, free of charge, to anyone who contacts us. In addition to our community education and outreach programs, counselors respond to approximately 5,000 inquiries annually in Baltimore alone. We know more help is needed and we know more funding is necessary to increase our capacity, extend our hours and respond to everyone who seeks our assistance. This additional funding to support and assist tenants will not fall out of the sky. Based on current government funding challenges and federal government budget proposals, the future of public funding is bleak. The Trump administration is proposing elimination of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program. As reported by the Sun ("Baltimore poverty programs face cuts," July 9), the end of this program would mean a loss to Baltimore of $19 million a year. In addition to funding city government programs, the federal block grants provide vital funding support to over 60 non-profit agencies including BNI.
BNI's tenant/landlord program and hotline counselors uniquely serve the community by impartially disseminating information on tenant-landlord law and providing resources and referrals to landlords and tenants, all without charge. Our hope is that we will be able to continue this work so that all parties will know their respective rights and responsibilities and "do the right thing."
Robert J. Strupp, Baltimore
The writer is executive director of Baltimore Neighborhoods, Inc.